Mikati’s resignation need not set off immediate alarms about Lebanon’s future

mikati

In Lebanon, elections are both much less and much more than what we typically think of as elections. Lebanon

Given that the country’s constitution mandates that the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of the national assembly a Shi’a Muslim, it’s not a surprise that parliamentary elections are a carefully stage-managed process of allocating seats to Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب) to ensure half of the seats (64) go to Muslims and another half (64) go to Christians — specific allocations guarantee a set number of seats for each of Lebanon’s 22 confessionals.

So the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati (pictured above) on Friday should be seen as a prologue to the electoral choreography, given that new elections are due in June when the current parliamentary terms ends.  Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman has accepted Mikati’s resignation, but asked Mikati to stay on as a caretaker prime minister until a new prime minister can be announced.

It should not necessarily be seen as a warning sign that Lebanon is invariably descending into chaos or that it is doomed to be drawn into Syria’s civil war, notwithstanding the latest clashes in Tripoli, which seem to have quieted since the weekend.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city on its northern coast near the Syrian border, is especially geared toward tension, with its own Sunni majority and Alawite minority mirroring the demographic dynamic in Syria.  But despite some high-profile kidnappings in the Bekaa Valley last August, and flare-ups from time to time in Tripoli, Lebanon has done a reasonable job in avoiding the same fate as Syria.

That’s in no small part due to the resolve of many (though not all) of Lebanon’s political elite to keep Lebanon from returning to the era of civil war that devastated the country in the late 1970s and 1980s, though as the Syrian civil war approaches its two-year anniversary, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Lebanese leaders to remain neutral in the conflict.  That became especially true after a car bomb blast in Beirut last October killed Lebanon’s top intelligence official, Wissam al-Hassan, a longtime Hariri ally — his assassination is widely believed to have been engineered by Syrian — or even Hezbollah (حزب الله‎) — forces.  Hezbollah is also widely believed of actively supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime with military force inside Syria, because Assad (together with Iran’s regime) are the two major lines of political and monetary support for Hezbollah.  If Assad falls in Syria, Hezbollah will no longer be able to look to Damascus for patronage.

So while Mikati’s resignation need not mean an irreparable retreat for Lebanon, it nonetheless portends a difficult few months ahead — the key stumbling block is agreeing to an election law in advance of elections or, at minimum, the agreement for an electoral supervision body to oversee the planned June 9 poll.  Another solution might include the extension of a national unity government with a minor delay of the elections.

The next step lies with Suleiman, who could call a ‘national dialogue’ among all of Lebanon’s political leaders in hopes of achieving at least a caretaker government to see through the implementation of a law that will clear the path for new elections.  

Since 2005, Lebanon’s politicians have been divided into two broad coalitions:

  • The ‘March 14′ group, led by former prime minister Saad Hariri, includes the vast majority of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian leaders, including the Lebanese Forces (القوات اللبنانية‎) of Samir Geagea and the Kataeb Party (or Phalange, حزب الكتائب اللبنانية) of Amine Gemayel, and includes a good deal of Lebanon’s Sunni leaders as well, including Future Movement (تيار الممستقبل) that’s led by Hariri and former prime minister Fouad Siniora.  The coalition’s name is in reference to a 2005 protest in opposition to Syria’s military presence in Lebanon following the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafic Hariri.  
  • The ‘March 8′ group, originally pro-Syrian, includes Mikati and many Sunni leaders as well Greek Orthodox leaders, the Free Patriotic Movement (التيار الوطني الحر‎), a Maronite group under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and Lebanon’s Shi’a politicians, including Hezbollah and Amal (حركة أمل‎).

As the Syrian war continues, the logic of those alliances have increasingly broken down — Syrian forces left Lebanon in 2005 after nearly three decades of occupation amid credible suspicion that the Syrian military played a role in the assassination of Rafic Hariri.  Whereas Assad (and his father before him) and the Syrian military once held an overweening role in Lebanese governance, even after 2005, today Assad’s preoccupation with his own bloody civil war means he’s no longer in a position to dictate anything to Lebanon’s leaders.

In that sense, Mikati’s resignation results directly from the Syrian civil war, which has cleaved the ‘March 8′ alliance between the two  sides of the Syrian belligerents.  Sunni Lebanese have become increasingly more sympathetic to the largely Sunni opposition in Syria, while Hezbollah and Aoun remain more sympathetic to the Assad regime.

That divide has left Mikati isolated between Hariri’s opposition forces on one side, and Hezbollah on the other.

Even as ‘March 14′ leaders seemed to welcome the resignation, Aoun and Hezbollah’s leaders sharply criticized it.  Aoun called it ‘silly’ and traded barbs with Mikati over the weekend and Hezbollah was even more critical.

Hezbollah, however, more than anyone else in Lebanese politics, deserves the blame for the current impasse — one of Mikati’s top reasons for resigning was the failure of his government to procure the reappointment of Ashraf Rifi as the general director of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, the country’s internal police force.  Hezbollah has been reluctant to support Rifi, who was first appointed in 2005, because it considers Rifi too close to Hariri and the ‘March 14′ coalition.  Critics argue that Hezbollah has opposed Rifi’s reappointment in order to secure a more amenable general director and thereby consolidate Lebanon’s security apparatus under Hezbollah control.  So Mikati found himself trapped in a tug of war between Hezbollah and the Hariri-led opposition over control of Lebanon’s internal security forces.

Hezbollah has long been a thorn in Mikati’s government — it tried to stop the Lebanese government from supporting the United Nations tribunal on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and it has held up the resolution of the election law as well as Rifi’s reauthorization.

For his part, Amal leader and National Assembly speaker Nabih Berri has come out in favor of a ‘national dialogue’ session.  Perhaps even more promisingly, some ‘March 14′ coalition leaders, including Geagea, have applauded Mikati’s decision — ‘March 14′ leaders have largely boycotted Mikati’s government since the bombing last October that killed al-Hassan, but now seem willing to engage Mikati and others in advance of elections following his resignation.

If Hariri publicly a return to ‘national dialogue,’ it is not inconceivable to see the outlines for a national government that would have the support of the ‘March 14′ coalition, Mikati’s Sunni supporters and Shi’a moderates, such as Amal’s Berri.  That broad support, however, would further isolate Hezbollah and risk realigning Lebanese politics into more sharply pro-Assad and anti-Assad lines, not to mention a deeper Sunni-Shi’a cleavage.  The obvious concern is that Hezbollah, backed into isolation, could resort to violence to assert its political position, destabilizing the country sufficiently to draw a violent response inside Lebanon from Lebanese Sunnis or, worse, Syrian Sunni rebels in retribution for Hezbollah military action within Syria.

So while Mikati’s resignation could result in antagonizing Hezbollah and pushing Lebanon closer to destabilization, it could just as equally provide a path to a national unity government among the broad spectrum of Lebanese political leaders whose top priority is keeping Lebanon away from sectarian violence and civil war.  You can imagine that Berri, in particular, as a top Shi’a official who’s not a Hezbollah leader, will be incredibly important in the days ahead.

In addition to Hariri, keep your eyes on Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (الحزب التقدمي الاشتراكي‎) and widely considered Lebanon’s most important Druze leader.  In June 2011, Jumblatt abandoned Hariri’s ‘March 14′ government in favor of Mikati’s ‘March 8′ government.  If he sides with either ‘March 14′ or ‘March 8′ in the coming days, or leans toward a neutral cabinet, it’s a pretty good indication of where Lebanon’s government will be headed leading up to new elections.

Photo credit to Mohammad Azakir of The Daily Star.

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